Defence has been a big focus in Super Rugby AU and compared to the more open fare displayed elsewhere it’s understandable that this may be seen as a negative.
But we need to keep in mind that with inexperienced teams finding their feet, which very clearly the Super Rugby AU sides are, Defence will always be the first focus.
Defence is generally the first thing we’ll notice. It’s a more immediate fix than attack, at least in getting a noticeable result, but it’s also something that teams can grow into and seeing the Super Rugby AU teams develop has been interesting.
Then you get a game like the Reds vs Rebels and you realise some days defence is about a bit more than just stopping a score. On those days you just have to stand back and admire the commitment and intensity a team brings to the game.
If you heard Brad Thorn talk after the game you couldn’t have helped but to be struck by his “Originesque” comment in regards to their defence.
You don’t need me to tell you what that means but as a compliment to Michael Todd’s work with these inexperienced Reds players it speaks volumes.
As does the fact they made 143 tackles to 9 in the second half (232 to 80 in total). That, to me, both flags up how much possession the Rebels had (a whopping 88%) and how much intensity the Reds brough to their defence.
Sure, the Rebels will be frustrated they let so much go to waste. Should they have done more? Well yes, of course but in this game the impact their defence had was the absolute stand out around this Red’s performance, so, you know, swings and roundabouts really.
So we are going to run through a couple of moments in the game that I think show some interesting things happening. Noticeably good decision making and intelligence that I felt grew throughout the game.
System wise it seems the Reds used,
Regular Phase defence:
- 13 + 2 with usually JOC and Campbell or Hegarty taking a half pitch each
- high edge defenders
- Quick line speed then they go soft to push to the edges
In their Danger Zone:
- 14+1 in their Red Zone (22)
- Out to in tackle lines (we’ll look at this in a bit)
I say seemed because obviously there are variations on that (kick return for example). It’s a simple and familiar structure that it works, so there is no ground breaking defensive trickery going on. It’s just good hard work that on this occasions pays off.
As always we’ll start at the beginning.
I want to have a look at the Rebels first attack, at 01:2o on the game clock. It’s a relatively unremarkable attack that ends in a penalty to the Reds for Toomua sealing off.
But let’s go through it and it starts with the Rebels playing off a lineout and using Korobite directly off 9 as a set up play.
Coaches talk about being square and defending the ball and essentially what they mean is keep someone in front of the ball and in a position to tackle both sides (so left or right).
Petaia does exactly that. It would have been easy for him to fade off and watch the next man out, safe in the knowledge McReight is going to make the tracking tackle but what’s key here is he knows his role, sees it through and instead of allowing soft yards he meets Korobite and gets a shot in and they stop him at the point of contact.
Reds reload quickly and set up 2 or 3 paces off the offside line so they can generate early line speed.
Stewart is able to get up nice and early and in the ball carriers space forcing a decision and that allows Paisami, to make an early decision and he is able to come from out to in to get a dominant shot it in on Naisarani.
That out to in line is important in defence and we’ll see it a few times here.
Dominant hits are usually considered front on big highlight reel hits but the reality is one where the tackler controls what’s happening. Paisami doesn’t need to flatten Naisarani; he just needs to halt the Rebels’ momentum and make them reset..
In the next phase the Rebels have managed to create an overload but Reds first get in front of the ball and we can see Daugunu and Campbell start to jockey off to buy some time for the Reds cover defence to fold under.
We’re now into the realm of one on one defence and that backing off allows Campbell change his focus and react to Toomua and Hodge, bringing the latter down and Straker attacks the ball.
Now, whilst none of this looks exceptional, and it isn’t, what it tells me is everyone understands what their role is and what they are looking to do. They have clarity and are able to work confidently within their system, no one shies away from the task at hand.
Let’s skip to 5:30 and the Rebels attack off a scrum on their own 10m line, this is slightly more promising for the Rebels and they make a good 40m.
The attacking shape of the Rebels tells us everything, with Deegan and Koroibete hiding they are looking to attack the thin defence out wide.
Toomua will act as first receiver to them floating around behind Magnay.
But the focus here is defence and I want you to look at Paisami here.
He is in a thankless position here, he has to decide if he breaks the line to pressure the slide around or hold his ground and get rounded.
Instead he treads water, importantly stays active and doesn’t plant and watches what happens. This means he’s able to make a late burst and swim through to pressure Deegan.
Yes, Deegan got the ball away to Koroibete but it wasn’t a clean pass and it could easily have gone to ground.
It’s easy to focus on the fact the Rebels making so much ground and running with ball in hand and we’ll see plenty of mistakes from the Reds that allow that in this game but the point is simply that he made the right defensive read and acted on it. Despite what happened after Paisami here is an example of someone trusting his team mates to back his decision.
What I find really interesting though is that we are starting to see the shoot’s of really intelligent defending, with guys reading the play, staying alive until you can have an impact. These are good, and important building blocks even if, as here, it doesn’t always deliver.
So let’s really fast forward landing around 55 minutes on the clock, where we stumble upon another Rebels Scrum attack.
With a split field and the 50-22 the Reds have set up as below:
Campbell has to stay deep on the left (out of shot), Flook is on the right and Petaia has dropped back to cover the kick on the far touch line (also out of shot). Daugunu has come in tight to create a solid midfield that the Rebels have to get around.
Obviously this leaves the Reds with a lot of space to cover on this near side of the pitch but it’s about as good a set up as you’re going to get in this scenario.
Meakes pass to Kellaway look’s to exploit that but the fact Kellaway has to come into collect the ball and Daugunu backed off to fill the space means Kellaway continues infield. The space was there to attack but the reds set meant it took a hail mary pass, just on the edge of Meakes skill set to try and exploit it.
Again, the Reds set up a little off the hindmost feet to allow them to move pre-pass by the halfback (There is maybe a question mark over the far side being on side but they continue their path back. So for me there is no material impact on the attack).
Another out to in tackle from Straker and Salakaia-Loto stays high to soak momentum and stop the offload.
It’s a bit soft and both fall off and from a really good position Reds have allowed their line to be broken and give valuable momentum to the Rebels but they show good work to set well off the hindmost feet at the next breakdown:
Allowing them to get nice and high on that far edge forcing the Rebels back inside.
It’s good work rate to get set and go again despite losing ground.
I think perhaps there is a missed chance on both these carries to get a genuinely dominant hit in and because the Reds don’t the Rebels have managed to get through the initial contact.
Next ruck sees a decent set up but the transition defender is where the Rebels are looking to attack and we see Fa’amausili gallop through.
It’s important to flag we’re seeing small errors here from the Reds but they are (for me) all individual errors as opposed to system errors or collective issues and the location is quite far out. If you’re going to be soft this is where, intensity is not quite at its max and there is space to recover.
From here on though things go up a notch, it’s a slow ruck (around 8 seconds) and we can see the Reds are set and ready to go.
In the next phase Wilson gets in early and low, sapping momentum.
Then similarly to Paisami, JOC doesn’t bite early and tracks the ball stays active and swims through to apply some pressure on Deegan.
It might not seem a lot but look what it does to Deegans pass to Hardwick who now has to check and go again from a standing start.
It’s really quite exceptional work from Hardwick to stay in play. Salakaia-Loto gets his timing wrong and shoots a little early giving the penalty.
But defence doesn’t stop because of advantage and the Reds read the snap back pattern and are set for Lomani’s dart back down the near side.
Like I said, this is far from perfect. Individual errors are allowing things to go a little wrong here and there but not ones born from pressure generated by the Rebels attack or obvious system failures. They are just moments that happen and whilst far from ideal they ultimately don’t have any material impact.
In this final clip, straight after Naisarani was held up is possibly my favourite sequence of defence.
The Goal Line drop out, which just about makes it past the 22, is not ideal from JOC. You really want that ball long and into space to allow you to get way out of your 22 but regardless the next minute of defence from the reds is phenomenal.
First up it’s a big ask to stop the charging Koroibite, but they do so and it’s a great start to this defensive sequence.
Reds set up off the line, again using that space to move early from deep. Generating line speed and stopping Naisarani with room to spare, driving him back with another out to in dominant hit with that inside assist.
In the next phase the Rebels nearly slip through with a slider around the back but Stewart hasn’t committed and is able to recover and close it down. Yes it’s nearly a break but it’s good work to turn it form something into nothing.
Again good work rate to get onside and ready to go again leaving Deegan no options other than sending Meakes into contact.
As the Rebels rewind we can see the Reds have actually set their defence and are better organised than the attacking side. Coming from behind the line early, generating linspeed .
The result is pressure and a mistake from the Rebels trying to pay out the back.
Hodge gets hammered cleaning up and the Reds have moved from just trying to kill an attack into that Battle Rhythm you see in a team defending collectively. Coming forward and just looking for the hit again the Rebels are pressured into poor passing from the hinge and Meakes gets lit up.
The Reds are winning the momentum and are now into the Rebels space and loving every single hit.
Over the space of 11 phases the Rebels attacking shape has completely deserted them, they use a bounce back pattern (coming back the way you’ve just come from) to try to combat the line speed of the reds and ultimately are reduced to just one out runner’s which the reds just pick off each time.
By the time we hit the 14th phase all semblance of attacking shape has gone and a frustrated Koroibete tries to generate something and coughs the ball up for the reds to clear.
For me that’s the game. The Reds are in that defensive zone now, and the Battle Rhythm they have adopted just allows them to work collectively to shut out the Rebels.
Suddenly Defence is easy, a perfect example is the shutdown of Kellahway in the right corner 3 minutes later look at the numbers at the tackle:
The Jackal from McReight on 68 Minutes to kill another attack:
Yeah, sure they cough up a yellow and there are a couple of held up moments but the intensity the Reds bring in this last 20 minutes is simply phenomenal.
Of course there is a long way for them to go but as a coach, and a fan you love to see a team grow into a game and the Reds slowly transform over the course of this game from a slightly timid team that show plenty of respect to the Rebels into a team that is loving their defensive dominance to the point where guys are having two bites at the hit in succession.
And this for me has been the real highlight of Super Rugby AU. That returns to the ethics of hard work and core principles. The attack will come, but the quality of defence is getting better week on week – you’ll get the odd no show as per the Waratahs Reds but in general I think it’s hard to deny that things are moving in the right direction.